In this interview author Charles C. Mann discusses some of the “myths” about North American pre-history that he exposes in his recent book, 1491: New Revelations of the Native Americans Before Columbus.
Some of the more important assumptions challenged by the “revelations” in the book are that the Americas were thinly populated before European “discovery”, that pre-Columbian native societies were undeveloped and technologically primitive, that natives were primarily hunters and gatherers who had very little impact on their environment.
He also looks at some of the current debate about the “origins” of American native populations – in particular the “Beringian” theories that hold that North American native ancestors came across the land bridge created in the Bering Sea during the last ice age.
To a great degree many of the most recent discoveries about pre-Columbian native life in the Americas are completely missing in North American high school history courses.
For example, many researchers now believe that before Columbus the population of the Americas was at least as high as that of Europe at the time. Estimates are that between 50 and 200 million native Americans were living at that time.
There were also examples of large and complex cities in the Americas. The most obvious example is Tenochtitlan located where Mexico city is now found. Tenochtitlan was the Aztec capital at the time of the Spanish “conquest” by Hernando Cortes. At that time this city had running water, beautiful botanical gardens, and immaculately clean streets. It was larger than any contemporary city in Europe – including Paris and London – with a population estimated at around 250,000.
Mann also discusses at some length the depopulation of native Americans that took place after contact with Europeans. Some estimates are that as many as 90% of native Americans died during a succession of epidemics in the late 1400s, and throughout the 1500s and 1600s.
These massive native deaths completely changed native society, culture and political organization. They sapped the ability of American natives to resist invasion by Europeans, and they made it possible for Euro-immigrants and successive Euro-American leaders to claim that the Americas were vast unspoiled, under-populated expanses of wilderness.
As an example of the political and historical impact of disease on the native populations Mann discusses the fall of the great Aztec and Incan “empires” at some length. The fall of these empires was made possible by diseases that ravaged native populations at precisely the time the Spaniards were invading their homelands.